- Locate the passage
This pericope begins a new toledoth in the text. The story resumes the accounts of the family of Jacob. It reveals that the sin of favoritism that Jacob learned from Isaac and Rebekah, that threatened to split Jacob’s family, continued to plague Jacob. This story is the transition from Jacob as the lead character to Joseph. But, as we meet Joseph in the story, he is still young and somewhat immature. Yet, God has a plan for Joseph’s life.
The passage is narrative. It records the conversations between Joseph and his brothers, Joseph and his father, Joseph and the man from Dothan, and Joseph’s brothers.
- Determine the structure of the passage
37:2-4 – Life as the favored son
37:5-8 – Joseph’s first dream which he told his brothers
37:9-11 – Joseph’s second dream which he told his brothers and his father
37:12-17 – Joseph sent to find his brothers
37:18-24 – Joseph’s brother’s plot against him
37:25-30 – Joseph’s brother’s revised plot against him
37:31-35 – Joseph’s brother’s cruelty to Joseph compounded by their cruelty to their father
37:36 – God’s plan for Joseph begins to unfold
- Exegete the passage
The story is about more than just tattle tales and dreams. It’s about family dysfunction, the downward cycle of sin, and its consequences.
Note the contrast between the non-specific “they saw” and “they said,” and the specific references to speeches of Rueben and Judah.
There is a link between Abraham’s family crises and the crises throughout history unto today.
- Abraham perhaps out of a lack of faith and an attempt to procure an heir for himself instead of waiting on God has a child named Ishmael with a concubine. Ishmael became the progenitor of the Ishmaelites.
- Ishmael’s mother was Egyptian (16:3) and took for him an Egyptian wife (21:21). Thus, a connection between the Ishmaelites and the Egyptians was formed.
- Isaac and Rebekah show favoritism towards Jacob and Esau. It divides their family ultimately forcing Jacob to leave home. Esau became the progenitor of the Edomites.
- Esau married the daughter of Ishmael, thus forming an alliance between the Edomites and the Ishmaelites was formed.
- Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers to the Ishmaelites (37:25).
- The Israelites and the Edomites were perennially in conflict (See Ps. 83:5-6; Lament 4:21-22; Ezek. 25:12-14; 35:5-6, 10-15; 36:5; Joel 3:19; Amos 1:11-12; Obadiah).
- The Herods were Edomites (See discussion on 36:1 above).
- Many trace the Edomites to the people of Jordan, Gaza, Southern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon today. Moreover, many of the Arab people of today can be traced back to the Ishmaelites.
- Thus, much of the conflict in the Middle East historically and today can be traced back to dysfunction in Abraham’s family line.
Note the significance of dreams that develop in the Joseph narratives. Previously, God spoke through direct revelation (20:3; 22:1-2; 26:2-5; 28:12-13; 31:3, 11, 24; 35:1, 9-12).
Does God speak through dreams? One would be wise not to put any limits on God. The writer of Hebrews in Hebrew 1:1-2 declares that in the past, God has spoken through a variety of means, but most recently through His Son.
Joseph is an intriguing figure in the text. He is depicted as immature and perhaps naïve in his early dealings with his brothers; yet faithful in temptation with Potiphar’s wife. He is perceptive and obedient in prison; wise with Pharaoh; and cunning and yet forgiving with his brothers.
37:2 – This pericope is introduced as the history of Jacob. Indeed, while Joseph is the key figure in much of the rest of the book, Jacob continues to be a prominent focus and it is the blessing of Jacob to which the text returns in Genesis 48-49.
37:2 – The sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah. Former rivals combine against Joseph. Here, Joseph tattle-tales on his brothers. The brothers about whom he complains to his father are the sons of Jacob’s concubines and not the sons of Leah.
- Here, the favored son complains to his father about the sons of the concubines. So, the rivalry has shifted from Rachel vs. Leah to a son of a legitimate wife vs. sons of concubines.
- Joseph brought a bad report (Hb. “dibbah”) against his brothers. The word occurs nine times Gen. 37:2; Num. 13:32; 14:36, 37; Ps. 31:14; Prov. 10:18; 25:10; Jer. 20:10; Ezek. 36:3) in the OT, each time in a negative context. See the use of this word in Num. 13:32 describing the “report” brought back to Moses by the spies who were sent into the Promised Land.
37:3-4 – Jacob continues to follow the pattern of his parents in showing favoritism towards his children.
- Unfortunately, Jacob’s children were aware of his favoritism. However, the target of their anger was turned towards Joseph (the favorite).
- They are presented as incapable of saying anything kind to him or about him.
- The Hb “pasim” carries the idea of “sole,” or “palm;” thus, long-sleeved or reaching to his palms. So, the phrase actually describes the length of the coat and not the color of it.
- See 2 Sam. 13:18. Here the exact phrase is used to describe the coat worn by Tamar (seemingly suggesting her virginity) which she ripped upon her assault by Amnon.
- The translation of “coat of many colors” follows the LXX and VG which use terms which convey the idea of “embroidered or “ornamented;” thus, expensive.
37:5 – Joseph, seemingly ignorant of their hatred of him, relates to his brothers a dream depicting him as superior to his brothers.
- Joseph’s brothers already hated him because Jacob treated him as superior to them. Now, Joseph seems to see himself as superior to them.
37:5 – They hated him “all the more”
- The Hb. “yasaph” means, “to add” and is the root of Joseph’s name.
- The phrase literally means, “they added still more hate.”
37:7-8 – Joseph explains that in his dreams, his brothers bowed down to him
- The repetition of the phrase, “they hated him more” is an exact repetition of the phrase in 37:5. The repetition is emphatic.
37:9-11 – Joseph, seemingly unaware of their increasing hatred towards him, had another dream and recounted it to both his fathers and brothers. In this dream, Jacob and Joseph’s brothers all bow down to him.
- The dreams of Joseph seem to reflect Joseph’s comment to Pharaoh in Gen. 41:28, “God has shown Pharaoh [Jacob and his sons] what He is about to do.”
37:13-14 – The purpose for Jacob sending Joseph to his brothers is expressed in 37:14. Joseph was bringing back word about them to Jacob.
- Jacob wants to hear that all is “well” (shalom) with his sons. Nothing, except the enmity of the brothers, seems unnatural about Jacob’s request.
- So, similar to Joseph bringing a bad report back to Jacob in 37:2, he is instructed by his father to again bring back a word about them to Jacob.
- Jacob, like Joseph, seems ignorant of the hatred Joseph’s brothers have towards him. Or, perhaps, as he did with Simeon and Levi, Jacob is unwilling to confront them. It is possible that sending Joseph to them was his effort to help them reconcile.
37:14 – He came to Shechem
- From Dothan to Shechem was about 80 miles.
- Shechem could have been dangerous territory for Jacob’s sons to travel since Simeon and Levi killed the men of the city there.
- Here, again, Jacob seems oblivious to the potential danger for his son (sons) to be traveling near Shechem.
37:15 – Joseph was “wandering” in the field
- The word can mean to go astray ethically or merely to physically lose one’s way
- Here Joseph is depicted as not having a clear direction in trying to find his brothers
- The “finding” of Joseph in the field and the “finding” of his brothers (37:17) answers the wandering of Joseph in the field.
37:17 – Joseph was told by the unidentified man that his brothers had moved to Dothan
- Dothan was another 13 miles from Shechem
37:18 – The brothers saw Joseph from a far off
- The no doubt recognized him because of his coat
- That coat reminded them of all the reasons why they hated Joseph
- Since he was a long distance away, they had time to calculate on what to do with him
- Their hatred of him was so great, they considered murder
37:19 – Behold the “dreamer” comes
- “lord of the dreams”
- “ba’al” can mean, “lord,” “master”
- It is the word later associated with the false god, Ba’al.
37:20-22 – Reuben’s Proposal
- The brothers consider killing their brother and throwing his body into a pit and claiming that a beast killed him
- Part of the purpose of their intent to kill him was to prevent his dreams from becoming reality.
- Reuben hears of the plot and intervenes to “rescue” Joseph
- Perhaps trying to recapture his position as oldest son (i.e “protector”)
- Reuben proposes that they do part of their plan (throwing Joseph into a pit), but not killing him.
- Supposedly, Reuben planned to later rescue Joseph from his other brothers.
- Nevertheless, if that was his intention, he seems to lack the ability to convince his brothers not to harm Joseph
- The fact that Reuben wanted to “return” Joseph to his father suggests that he may have been trying to regain his father’s trust, knowing that Joseph would detail to his father all that his brothers tried to do to him.
- All of these events took place between the time the brothers first saw Joseph coming and his arrival.
- Joseph seems to learn of this conversation in Gen. 42:22-24 when Reuben recalled this conversation with his brothers and Joseph overheard them. Joseph responded to hearing of this conversation by turning away from them in tears.
37:23-24 – When Joseph arrives, no conversation is recorded. Though, we learn later from Gen. 42:21 that Joseph pled for his life. Instead, the brothers take his coat and cast Joseph into a pit. The pit appears to have been a cistern or old water well that no longer had water in it.
- This event is later replicated by the enemies of Jeremiah in Jer. 38:9.
37:25 – The brothers callously respond to their own actions by sitting down to eat.
- See Ex. 32:6; 1 Cor. 10:7-8
- The Jewish Midrash points out the obvious irony of the brothers sitting down to eat leaving Joseph (the one who would eventually feed not only them, but the whole known world) ostensibly to die. (Genesis Rabbah, 84.17)
37:25 – The Ishmaelites are coming
- That the traders were Ishmaelites is significant in the text
- It recalls the sibling rivalry between Isaac and Ishmael; as well as Jacob and Esau
- No doubt the Ishmaelites are attracted to the opportunity since the “slave” whom they purchase is a Hebrew.
37:26-27 – Judah’s Proposal
- The fact that Judah proposed not killing Joseph does not merit “praise” (though that’s what his name means)
- Perhaps he justified it in his mind as saving Joseph’s life
- It is ironic (or perhaps out of guilt) that Judah later wants to be surety for another of Jacob’s sons (Benjamin) in Gen. 43:8-9.
- Instead, here Judah suggests that profiting from Joseph would be better than killing him.
- The brothers have forgotten their desire to prevent Joseph’s dreams from coming true and are, instead, overcome with greed.
- Judah’s half-hearted appeal that Joseph was their “brother” seems ironic in the story. Obviously selling a brother into slavery isn’t something one would do to a brother.
37:28 – The price of a slave
- “They pulled Joseph up.”
- It’s not entirely clear in the text if the brothers pulled Joseph from the pit or if the Midianite traders did.
- See Gen. 45:4-5. There, Joseph makes clear that it was the brothers who sold Joseph, and not the Midianites (which could be supported by the Hebrew of 37:28 – “they pulled and brought up Joseph.”
- Here, the group previously described as “Ishmaelites” are described as “Midianites.”  See Sailhamer, 275, for a distinction between the spelling of Midianites in 37:25, 27 and Medanites in 37:36. It is possible that there are two different groups who have converged or that the term, “Ishmaelites” is used as a general description and the term, “Midianites” more specifically represents the specific people. Longman, 461.
- It’s not entirely clear in the text if the brothers pulled Joseph from the pit or if the Midianite traders did.
- Joseph is sold for 20 pieces of silver
- This is the price for a young slave (Lev. 27:5) was 20 pieces of silver. Though Lev. 27:3 suggests that someone over 20 years old would fetch 50 pieces of silver. This perhaps suggests Joseph’s age, or perhaps the value the brothers attributed to him.
37:29-30 – Reuben’s absence since his negotiation with his brothers is not explained in the text. Knowing what he knew of his brother’s intention, his departure is curious. He does return and apparently attempted to do what he had set him mind previously to do (rescue Joseph), but he was too late.
- Whether Reuben knew what his brothers had done to Joseph is unclear in the text. That he tears his clothes (a typical response to death) could indicate that he thought that they might have killed Joseph.
- Moreover, his response, “where can I go” suggests his desperation and concern about returning to Jacob without Joseph.
37:31-32 – The brothers compound their sin by concocting a tale to tell their father that Joseph was dead.
- Instead of merely saying that they don’t know where Joseph is, they devise a plan to make their father believe that Joseph is dead. Their careless treatment of their brother is compounded by their callous deception of their father.
- Sin often leads to further sin
- Efforts to cover up sin often requires deception
- Interestingly, the text never records the brothers “explaining” their lie to their father. Moreover, at Jacob’s death, he does not recall their cruelty to Joseph.
37:33 – The brothers allow their father to form his own conclusion
37:34-35 – Jacob tore his clothes
- Like Reuben earlier, Jacob tore his clothing in grief believing his son was dead.
- Even when his children tried to comfort Jacob, he refused to be comforted.
37:36 – As this passage comes to a close, the Midianites sold Joseph to Potiphar.
- Joseph who has now been sold at least twice is in prison and a further threat to God’s people is coming.
- The brothers could not have known the sequence of events that they unleashed
- Let the structure of the text drive the sermon
Exp. This passage reminds us of the lingering problem of sin in Jacob’s family. One could argue that the problem went back to Abraham. The consequences of that sin were dramatic and lingering.
Exp. Joseph might have acted out of immaturity, but his brothers acted out of evil (Gen. 50:20).
- Sin has consequences
Ill. Num. 32:23 – Your sins will find you out.
- The sin of favoritism which divided Isaac family nearly destroyed Jacob’s. Moreover, at the end of this pericope, the family of Jacob is headed towards Egypt, where they will be enslaved for 400 years.
- The sin of envy is here pictures as driving the brother’s actions. They would later come to regret their actions here (Gen. 42:21).
- Sin leads to further sin
- The brothers efforts to cover up their sin only required additional sin
- Believers are called to stand against sin
- Jacob refused to confront potential problems in his family
- Reuben (who had forfeited his influence because of his sin) had no ability to dissuade his brothers from their evil intentions
- Judah (whose name means praise; and later wanted to serve as a mediator for Benjamin) convinced himself and others that selling their brother was acceptable
- Wiser heads did not prevail and apparently were not present
- But, God can cause our evil to bring about good (you meant it for evil)
- Despite the brothers sinful actions and the ultimate slavery in Egypt, God was also about to bring about good from their evil. Joseph knew that; and so did Paul. But, the conditions of Rom. 8:28 are still required (love God; called according to His purpose)
- God is able to bring about good in your sin, too!